out of Five
Running time: 146
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the hit stage play isn't exactly subtle and is at least half an hour too long, but it's an engaging and frequently moving drama with strong performances and a handful of genuinely stunning sequences, not to mention some world class horse-wrangling.
What's it all about?
Directed by Steven Spielberg, War Horse is based on the hit stage play, which in turn was based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. The story begins in rural Devon in 1913, when a horse named Joey is bought by farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) on a drunken impulse and is adopted by Ted's teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who proves the horse's worth by teaching Joey to work the fields. However, when war breaks out, Ted sells Joey to a kindly cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston), who promises a heartbroken Albert that he'll look after his horse.
After a catastrophic battle scene, Joey finds himself without an owner and subsequently changes hands between various people, including a young German soldier (David Kross), a French farmer (Nils Arestrup) and his young grand-daughter (Celine Buckens), a kindly German horse-handler (Nicolas Bro) and a Geordie soldier (Toby Kebbel) who encounters Joey in No Man's Land. Meanwhile, Albert joins the army and heads to France, hoping against hope to be reunited with his beloved horse.
The performances are excellent: Irvine makes a likeable debut as Albert and there are a series of terrific turns from Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch (as Captain Nicholl's superior), Emily Watson (as Albert's mother), Nicolas Bro and particularly Toby Kebbel, who steals the film with a moving and funny scene involving Joey and a German soldier in No Man's Land.
In addition, Spielberg orchestrates some genuinely stunning sequences, including a horrific battle sequence and an extraordinary scene in which Joey runs through the trenches with bombs and gunfire exploding in the background (like am equine version of Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory). Needless to say, the animal acting is exemplary throughout.
The main problem is that the film lacks the invention of either the stage play (which used puppetry for the horse) or the novel (written from the horse's point of view) and becomes rather a straightforward story as a result. It's also rather heavy-handed in places (the horse is a METAPHOR) and the climax, while moving, doesn't quite deliver the emotional kick you're hoping for, largely because it can't quite top the earlier No Man's Land scene.
While not up there with Spielberg's best films, War Horse is an impressively directed, frequently moving drama with strong performances and some genuinely stunning sequences. Worth seeing.